Special Education

States Lax in Enforcing IDEA, Study Asserts

By Joetta L. Sack — February 02, 2000 4 min read

States are failing to enforce the nation’s primary special education law, leaving students with disabilities and their parents spending personal time and money to fight for an adequate education, a federal report charges.

Follow-Up

“Back to School on Civil Rights” is expected to be available soon online from the National Council on Disability.

The long-term study on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, released last week by the National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency, looks at the law’s implementation since its passage in November 1975. Every state, according to the researchers, is negligent in complying with at least some provisions of the IDEA.

“Noncompliance has persisted in some states over many years, placing enormous burdens on children and families,” said Marca Bristo, the council’s chairwoman.

Increased Sanctions

The IDEA, a groundbreaking law that guaranteed access to education for thousands of disabled children who had been kept out of schools, still poses problems for administrators, the report says. The law has many complicated, multilayered provisions to ensure that students with disabilities are identified promptly and that each receives appropriate educational services.

Too many special education students, says the 400-page report, are still educated in segregated classrooms and do not receive adequate services. Monitoring the districts, a duty charged to the states under IDEA, is the only way to make sure that students receive adequate services, says the 15-member council the president appoints and the Senate confirms.

Among the report’s findings is that the Department of Education, under Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley’s guidance, has increased the effectiveness of using sanctions to punish noncomplying states. But more needs to be done, the council maintains.

The report recommends that the Education Department and the Department of Justice work together to draft “national compliance standards” to assure that the IDEA is enforced consistently.

In recent years, Education Department officials have repeatedly warned states and educators that they will step up their efforts and crack down on states that do not have proper mechanisms to oversee their districts. (“IDEA Rules Are Hot Topic at State Spec. Ed. Directors’ Meeting,” Nov. 26, 1997.)

Judith E. Heumann, the assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services, agreed that there are compliance problems throughout the country.

“These problems vary by state in severity, complexity, pervasiveness, and longevity,” she said in a prepared statement. She was unable to attend the release of the report on Capitol Hill because of a snowstorm that shut down the federal government.

“The administration has used the enforcement tools and sanctions at its disposal, including corrective-action plans, special conditions on grants, and multiyear compliance agreements,” Ms. Heumann added.

In 1997, for instance, the office of special education programs threatened to withhold funding from Virginia for allowing special education students to be expelled permanently from school systems.

Moreover, the office, known as OSEP, created a more comprehensive monitoring system in 1998. That system will aid states in complying with the law, said Bill East, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education. Many states are now looking at overhauls of their own monitoring and funding systems, he added.

“The new systems OSEP has put into place will go a long way in fixing problems,” Mr. East said. “We believe states are moving in the right direction.”

Greater Funding Urged

The National Council on Disability also called on Congress to appropriate more money to help enforce the law and provide assistance, as well as free and low-cost legal services to families.

Two Democratic senators, both key supporters of the IDEA, released statements last week praising the report and calling for greater congressional oversight of enforcement efforts.

“Vigorous enforcement of IDEA is essential,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the ranking minority member on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and a co-sponsor of the original law. “IDEA can make the difference between dependence and independence—between lost potential and productive careers—but the only realistic way to achieve this goal is through effective enforcement of its provisions.”

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa added: “We still have a lot of work to do. ... Congress must not rest until every child with a disability has the opportunity to succeed.”

Finding more funds for IDEA has been a longtime education priority of congressional Republicans. Key GOP lawmakers on the House and Senate education committees had not reviewed the report as of late last week, aides said.

Bruce Hunter, the chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators, said factors such as persistent teacher shortages in special education make it impossible for districts to comply fully, though most are coping with the inadequate resources and other challenges. “Everybody in the school business knows that almost nobody has a program that’s in complete compliance.”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2000 edition of Education Week as States Lax in Enforcing IDEA, Study Asserts

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